Ian Fitzpatrick: “This shouldn’t just be a box ticking exercise. What we’ve done is good, and definitely supported, but let’s see what else we can do.”

Scottish football history was made last week when two referees, Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson, came out as gay.

It is the first time since 1994, when Justin Fashanu was turning out for Hearts, that there has been representation of the LGBTQIA+ community on the pitch in the men’s game in Scotland.

However, while undoubtedly a monumental step forward for men’s football in the country – coming so quickly off the back of Blackpool’s Jake Daniels sharing his story – there are other people already out in the game with roles less often in the spotlight.

Clubs across the UK have LGBTQIA+ people working for them in office roles, as physios, sports scientists, analysts, and in their media departments. It is just not as common to hear about the people working behind the scenes in football.

Take Ian Fitzpatrick for example. A boyhood Clyde fan, he began working as associate director at Broadwood in 2019 before moving to Stenhousemuir, where he is currently their head of marketing and communications.

Fitzpatrick does not hide his sexuality – in fact, a rainbow tattoo on his arm would make it quite difficult to do – and he hopes the actions of Napier, Wilson and Daniels will just be the start of more people within football, in any capacity, being open about who they are.

“I think it’s great that the two referees have come out, and the same with Jake from Blackpool last month as well,” he said.

“I think that’s the start, and I kind of hope that that’s the floodgates open now where people can feel comfortable coming out and taking them on that journey.

“I don’t think anybody else in Scotland will until the start of the season, because everybody’s now keen to see what kind of response these guys get.

“The society that we live in now, we just don’t know what type of response they will get. I think it’ll be positive, and I think there will be a lot of support for them. Once players, referees, coaches or anybody sees that they get that level of support, they will say ‘right, I’m next’.

“That’s something that, in particular with Jake down south because he’s probably got a bigger profile than the two referees up here, I think will help people and I think probably in a year or two there will be an openly gay footballer in Scotland.”

Supporting Pride in part time football

Fitzpatrick’s role is a very different animal to what may immediately come to mind when some think of a media role in football.

As a part time club in the bottom tier of the Scottish Professional Football League, many of those working for the club are volunteers, juggling their football roles around full time jobs during the week.

On the media side of it, Fitzpatrick is no different, spending his days working for Buzz Bingo while turning his attention to Stenny in his “spare” time in the evenings and weekends for the most part.

Still, the club managed to do what many others in Scotland have not – mark Pride month with a social media post.

“It’s quite interesting, when I put that post up on Twitter the other day, almost immediately our CEO Blair Cremin got in touch and said ‘right, I love what you’ve done, but how can we do more?'” Fitzpatrick said.

“That’s the stage we probably need to get to now, because it’s all really good when clubs do that sort of thing and it’s probably more prevalent down south.

“If you go to any club’s social media in English football right now, you’d see the pride flag as part of their display, as part of their badge, and it’s less so done up here.

“There’s a journey that a lot of clubs need to go on. Sometimes it may just mean that the club doesn’t have – not necessarily a person that supports it, but the ability to go and do it.

“Clubs at our level don’t always have people who are proficient in Photoshop, everybody doesn’t have it, so you may get clubs that want to do it but they just don’t know how to put a pride flag on a badge or profile for whatever and therefore it just doesn’t happen.

“Some people may say, ‘oh, well, it’s June 6 now, so there’s no point in doing it’, and that happens quite often as well.

“Blair asked me is what the next step is, because this shouldn’t just be a box ticking exercise. What we’ve done is good, and definitely supported, but let’s see what else we can do.

“I’ve thrown out a few ideas about how we can support it better. Maybe that is giving up space on our kit for a charity, or kit design itself – putting an emblem or a pride element into that – or what we can do next to support.

“It’s all very good doing that once a year, but how do you go over and above that and how do you support it even further? I think that’s where a lot of clubs in Scotland are missing out now.

“Partick Thistle had a Pride element on their kit a few seasons ago, and that was really the one and only the time anybody in Scotland has done anything like that.

“That’s definitely something that we’re looking at because obviously we pride ourselves in being in a community club and you know what, everybody is included in that community. So we need to do our best to get that message out there.

“You need to have someone who’s part of the community involved in the club as well to be that main driver. That’s probably the bit that clubs are missing more than most other things.

“Obviously we’ve got myself at Stenhousemuir, and we’ve got Blair – who’s not LGBT+, but he was immediately on the phone asking what can we do better, what can we do that’s more meaningful? He’s still pushing it because he knows that the benefit is there.”

Community impact

It is almost at the point of cliche for clubs of Stenny’s size to call themselves a “community club”, but there seems to be a real push to deliver on that idea at Ochilview.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, they delivered over 10,000 meals to local people, and last year they launched a partnership with men’s mental health advocates Andy’s Man Club.

Support for the LGBTQIA+ community is just another prong to their efforts. It could be argued that, being so involved with local people, a club like Stenhousemuir supporting Pride could actually be more likely to have a direct impact on their supporters than bigger clubs, but Fitzpatrick sees the benefit of a positive message coming from all.

“A lot of clubs say that they are a community, but I think if you asked anybody to describe Stenhousemuir, the word community will definitely be in there,” he reasoned.

“That’s clear because they’ve got evidence, they’ve got tangible proof that Stenhousemuir is a community football club, and there’s a lot of people in the communities that benefit from that.

“As part of the community, if Stenhousemuir can get behind Pride then that’s more relatable to people in that community, but if you’re a bigger club you’ve got a bigger audience.

“In an ideal world everyone would get behind it and push it as best they can, because if me and Blair sit down to say ‘right, what can we do next’, we will look at that from a community point of view – 100% it will be based on the Stenhousemuir local community.

“If a Celtic, a Rangers, Man City or an Arsenal or whoever look at it, it’s from a different side of things because they’ve obviously got a bigger brand that they want to protect. With the world we live in, they need to consider that.

“The audiences they’ve got around the world needs to be considered as well. So when we do it, we do it for our local community, but when bigger clubs do it, it’s good because they are reaching a bigger audience to get that message out to.

“If you sit on any terrace on a Saturday afternoon, some of the chants you hear, some of the shouts are just vile. Why do you feel the need to shout that? It can be anything, I mean, it could be someone who’s got ginger hair or someone who’s looking a bit heavier than they should.

“I can never get my head around why someone wants to go to a football match and shout abuse at someone. I don’t get it. I don’t see the appeal in it, I don’t see what it does for anybody.

“When you look at some of the issues that have been raised in Scotland, particularly over the last couple years about racism more than anything else, I just don’t understand that.

“That’s probably why we have no openly gay footballers in Scotland. We obviously have the two referees, Craig and Lloyd, but we don’t have any players.

“Until the players can feel safe and and feel that they can go on to the football pitch without receiving abuse – which would be remarkable, because they already receive abuse now for having hair or no hair, wearing pink boots or whatever – they won’t come out.

“When you get shouted at for that, it’s just so difficult and you can understand why we don’t have any gay footballers in Scotland, purely because of the abuse that anybody gets from the crowd.”

Social media support

Credit where it is due though, despite what may be heard at matches on Saturday afternoons, Stenhousemuir’s social media posts in support of Pride have received no negative comments at all – something that cannot be taken for granted given the amount of abuse generally doing the rounds on social media platforms.

“When you look at a club like Stenhousemuir, everybody would get behind it – I don’t think there would be anyone saying anything untowards,” Fitzpatrick insisted.

“You’re quite cautious sometimes when you post stuff like that, but you need to do it because it needs to be done.

“If there’s anything negative, which I’ve not seen – we did it last year as well, and there was nothing negative last year – like anything you do on social media, you need to be prepared to monitor it.

“Maybe that is next step, where we take people on the journey and tell them why we’re supporting it, and why this cause needs support from our football club.

“Obviously, we’ve not had to do anything like that yet, because everybody’s been so positive, but again, at a club like Stenhousemuir you’re not going to get massive, massive responses, or engagement on something like that. A few people might comment saying ‘yeah, nice to see’, but the majority people just don’t care.

“It goes for anything in marketing and social media though, you always need to be prepared that there may be something that will go wrong, or somebody will take offence to something or whatever. There is always someone that is just ready to be offended, they just can’t wait for it.

“It is never a blocker to doing something, it shouldn’t be a blocker for doing something, you just need to keep in the back of your head that you may need to deal with something.

“For a tweet like that, you probably do it when you’re free for half an hour just in case anything pops up that you need to deal with quite quickly.

“You wouldn’t do that when you’re snowed under at work or anything like that, you can’t just go away and leave it and come back in a couple of hours and see what’s happened.

“With that type of thing you need to be ready – not to shout at anybody, just to be ready to challenge people if they’ve said anything. Then that’s the next step for you to take them on that journey and say this is really why we need to do it.”

Next steps for Scottish football – and Stenny

Fixing the issues with social media will take far more than a single person, though, and similarly the way forward for Scottish football when it comes to supporting the LGBTQIA+ community is outwith Fitzpatrick’s remit.

Instead, he is focusing on what he can do – both with Stenhousemuir, and also assisting his colleagues throughout the industry should they want or require help.

“I kind of just try and work to fix what we can do,” he added.

“What can anybody do? If there’s a footballer and he doesn’t want to come out, he doesn’t want to come out, and it’s very wrong for us to say that they should or ask why they aren’t.

“Everybody’s got their reasons and I think everybody’s got their own story behind who they are and what they want to accomplish.

“Sometimes they may feel pressure, and that’s exactly what we don’t want. We want people to come and be themselves, and if they’re not ready to do it until they retire or until later on in life, that’s certainly up to them.

“I think what Scottish football can do is just say that if there is anybody out there, let’s talk and we’ll help you on that journey. We will help you write your story and we’ll make sure that we present it to the world the way that you want to present it, because it’s the person that’s more important than anything else. I think that would be the best way to support them.

“Craig and Lloyd is the first step, and I’m hoping that will maybe pull a few people forward and get them thinking it’s now their time, but like I said, it’s really important that we don’t force anybody into that decision, it’s purely up to them.

“What I will say is that if there’s anyone that wants to talk to me from a footballing point of view, or not a footballing point of view on that kind of stuff, then feel free to just drop me a message. I’m always happy to sit and listen to people.

“During the pandemic I helped so many clubs with their social media, so now I’m happy to help them out with this type of stuff as well because I think it’s important that every every club gets that message of support out there.

“If I was a football player, and I played for a club that didn’t show any support for us, why am I going to come out? I’m not going to have that support.

“I think it’s important that we give everybody that support, and not just the players, but the clubs as well, so if anyone wants to have a chat – if anybody wants a logo with a pride flag behind their badge – just drop me a note and I’ll get that sorted for you.

“It’s quite important that we all support each other, so I’m here to support anybody that needs it.”

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